‘Greville Fane’ by Henry James

Greville Fane by Henry James, 1892

The magic trick:

Creating emotional effect out of relentless character analysis

We’re starting a week of Henry James stories. And this is a representative selection. It’s another Henry James story in which the author picks over his specimen for 17 pages, cold and analytical. Somehow, somewhere around page 14, you find yourself emotionally moved. This lab experiment of a biography has quietly affected you.

How does he do it?

In this one, he’s just relentless. There isn’t much action, even less suspense. What we get instead is character study. Lots and lots and lots of character study. It’s amazing, actually. And I would say that it doesn’t make for the most exciting reading experience. But you sure do feel like you get to know this woman. The level of character detail really is something.

So, when she breaks down in tears near the end? Yeah, the science experiment proves successful. The reader cares.

And that’s quite a trick on James’s part.

The selection:

I gave it all the opportunities I could, but I was not disappointed when I found her only a dull, kind woman. This was why I liked her—she rested me so from literature. To myself literature was an irritation, a torment; but Greville Fane slumbered in the intellectual part of it like a Creole in a hammock. She was not a woman of genius, but her faculty was so special, so much a gift out of hand, that I have often wondered why she fell below that distinction. This was doubtless because the transaction, in her case, had remained incomplete; genius always pays for the gift, feels the debt, and she was placidly unconscious of obligation. She could invent stories by the yard, but she couldn’t write a page of English. She went down to her grave without suspecting that though she had contributed volumes to the diversion of her contemporaries she had not contributed a sentence to the language. This had not prevented bushels of criticism from being heaped upon her head; she was worth a couple of columns any day to the weekly papers, in which it was shown that her pictures of life were dreadful but her style really charming. She asked me to come and see her, and I went. She lived then in Montpellier Square; which helped me to see how dissociated her imagination was from her character.

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